Let’s all take a deep breath before we dive into the Holocaust and the limits of American morality and power, as discussed in Richard Cohen’s column today.
Cohen writes that reading a recent book has changed the mindset he had in childhood that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a hero — indeed, close to a god. Roosevelt, Cohen now believes, was one of the few people in the world who could have done something about The Holocaust when there was still time — whether by speaking out, letting the world see the atrocities, bombing death camps or allowing mass refugees into America. But, it turns out Roosevelt only did what he did and when he did it, and, says Cohen, it wasn’t enough.
Postscript has found three categories of comment that she wants to focus on.
Group One: Commenters who answer that the practical politics of the situation, and Roosevelt’s lack of information and/or options, make the situation much less black-and-white than Cohen says:
There seems to be a fundamental omission in the article (I assume the book does not make this omission). What did Roosevelt know and when did he know it (regarding the Jews and the Holocaust)? I’ve read the article twice and cannot find that. Without that information, it seems impossible to judge what Roosevelt did or did not do at certain times.
FDR wanted to get a reluctant America into war with Germany. He was reportedly relieved when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, rather than British holdings in Asia, because it gave him the justification he needed to enter the war. He may have had some anti Jewish feelings as many Americans (e.g. Nixon) had. But politically, it may have been not smart to characterize the war as being fought to save Jewish victims.
Some Presidents have adopted policies that didn’t focus on all victims. E.g. Eisenhower must have sympathized with the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956, but he let Russia crush them. Clearly saving the Jews from Hitler’s crimes was not Roosevelt’s top priority. But it doesn’t prove anything about his anti-semitism.
Mr. Cohen, the most important thing about violence based on ethnicity is its commonness. Hitler’s actions toward Jews were terrible, and common. Then, and now. there has not been a day in my life when ethnic “purification” was not underway somewhere in the world.
Calling FDR remiss in saving the Jews is like calling Lincoln remiss in freeing the slaves. Could they have tried to do so more quickly? Yes, for both, and then their causes would have immediately collapsed.
You argue nothing about how difficult it was for Roosevelt to get this nation to go to war. (It was not like the neocons who marched us, lying and lockstep, into Iraq). With 20-20 hindsight, you argue nothing about how limited the intelligence and the ability to conceive of the magnitude of the problem.
Group Two: People who want to argue Cohen’s point that the Soviet army did the most significant damage to the Third Reich’s.
Mostly true in Europe. However America had enough troops to fight the war on 4 continents. The French troops from Africa fought their share as well to take back France and then Germany; however they couldn’t have won the war either. Our ships kept supplies meant for Germany out of Europe, and helped to feed those Russian soldiers. We helped to feed Britain, and chunks of continents, in addition to resupply of armaments and the actual soldiers.
As for the Soviets winning WWII – that is false. The ALLIES won WWII. American manufacturing kept the USSR afloat and fighting while they built their factories in the Urals, far from Nazi bombs. British and American forces in Africa drew Hitler’s attention in the crucial months after Stalingrad and El Alamein, weakening his Eastern Front and allowing the Russians to set up for the decisive Battle of Kursk. Any attempt to call the Allied victory in WWII anything other than a team effort is foolish.
Yes, America helped, but we didn’t send that much to the Soviets, and the Soviets destroyed 80% of Germany’s military might pretty much on their own. After Stalingrad, the outcome was never in doubt, because Germany could not reinforce, or reverse their retreat.
Remember also that Stalin was Hitler’s pal until he was betrayed. If you want to blame someone else for the Holocaust besides Adolf, Uncle Joe is one of the people who murdered millions of Jews in the Pogroms and purges from Soviet society before the war, and who often aided and sympathized with Adolf’s fear and loathing of the Jews. And Stalin certainly knew about the concentration camps before the war’s end, and in greater detail than FDR did. He wanted Eastern Europe free from Jews himself, and thought that Hitler was doing a good job in his half of Poland.
And in group three, commenters contend that compared to many, many terrible historical and current incidents, the worst characterization of FDR’s actions to stop the Holocaust is still among the most helpful actions America — or anyone — has yet managed in response to genocide-level-problems:
Let us not forget our own holocaust, the slaughter of Native Americans for land grabbing. We are far from a perfect example of how a society should behave.
And the enormous crime of 200 years of slavery, followed by a hundred years of Jim Crow.
What about N. Korea? It’s one big prison camp. Yet to free its people would be an undertaking of great risk, and frankly might destabilize an entire region. So we always have to balance these things.
Look how long it took NATO to get involved when Yugoslavia broke up. Look at the Congolese and Sudanese. Look at the mess we left in Iraq. The killings are still going on at a brisk pace. Is there ever a time when a genocide is NOT going on?
Prior to the war we were in the depths of the depression. It is difficult to see how Americans would have supported more immigration. It would be helpful to all if we had asylum policies that required people to return once the danger was over. That way we could provide help to more people and minimize the danger of this becoming just another parallel mass immigration system, like illegal immigration. Serious problems require common-sense solutions. And sometimes saying “no” does the most good. We live in a finite country in the middle of a finite world, and there is nothing you or I can do to change that fact.
How do you think history will judge us for twiddling our thumbs in the face of global warming? Roosevelt was great for what he did. His feet of clay, his failures to act when he should have are old news. They are an attribute of every person who has ever walked the earth.
The Holocaust was terrible, however why must everyone else be responsible for what was done in Germany? Are we all also responsible for Stalin or Mao? When America mistreats Americans do we claim that it is because of Germany’s failures?
If we are going to talk of hypocrisy and negligence, why do we not addresses the issue of the Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, who are being displaced from their homes and livelihoods since the establishment of Israel? I do not advocate the abolition of Israel, but our turning a blind eye to the continuing expansion of “settlements” on the West Bank is an injustice that should not be tolerated as long as material support is being given to that country.